Addressing the voice of the customer online is the single most important thing companies, especially large companies, can do this year.
For all of the talk of people “staying connected” through social media, and the growing interest smart brands have in connecting with consumers online, the area companies should be paying most attention to is the increased threat to corporate reputation that social channels bring.
This threat isn’t new. We’ve seen positive and negative examples of how word of mouth can impact a brand for years. The PR industry is built on it. The Web, and now specifically the social Web, has just accelerated and amplified the voice of the consumer and made the discussions searchable.
There are two things driving this phenomenon. First, there are more people online. In the late-90s we were doing whatever we could to get people online. Now they are online, and we need to figure out what to do with them. Second, the tools to share and connect are easier to use and integrate with one another (your Twitter feed posting to Facebook, for example) making your rant about the poor service you received at a car dealership apparent to everyone in your personal social circle and searchable by almost anyone with interest in those things. And, brands should be interested.
The problem is that most large companies won’t do anything to address the threat until they are forced into it. In fact, if you look at some of the companies championed for “getting it” and using the social Web to promote and defend their brands online, it’s a negative catalyst that caused them to think about the Web in a different way.
If it weren’t for Jeff Jarvis, would Dell have taken steps to redefine its online support? Maybe. But, would it have done it with the speed, resources and dedication that now makes Dell one of the best examples of experimentation on the Web? Maybe not. And, then there’s Comcast. If its downward spiral in customer perception hadn’t reached the breaking point, would Frank have taken the initiative to get closer to customers online through social channels? Who knows. But, I don’t think we’d be talking about how Comcast helped revolutionize how companies use social channels to address customer issues if it weren’t forced into it.
So, when people ask if Twitter or Facebook will be around in six months of if they’ll just become the digital equivalent of the Macharena (credit to Joe McHale for the reference) I say it doesn’t matter. The way people share their lives, including the fact that their repairman hasn’t showed up in three days, has changed fundamentally. To see this, you have to look through the technology itself and see how people are using it. And one of the biggest ways people are using technology is to talk about and to the companies they do business with. This is an activity that consumers won’t easily give up anytime soon.
But, as easy as it is to find customers with issues, and for consumers to push the buttons of large brands, addressing these issues isn’t something that most companies understand or are willing to invest in just yet. Until we reach a tipping point (which I think we’re teetering on now), this isn’t a priority for most companies. Acknowledging that these issues are out there means acknowledging that issues exist. And, addressing them requires a commitment – both human and technical (read $) – that most companies can’t or don’t want to invest yet.
But, watch this space. It’s about to really heat up.